The Bush administration's proposed wetland rules would undermine efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay and could have "severe environmental and economic impacts" on the nation as a whole, environmentalists warn.
A report issued yesterday by the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund charges that changes in federal rules for identifying wetlands are so sweeping they could lead to more water pollution, increased flooding and further declines in already dwindling populations of ducks, fish and rare plants and animals.
The report, written with the help of more than 40 specialists, goes beyond earlier predictions by government scientists and regulators that the administration's wetland policy could open to development up to 50 million acres of marshes, bogs and seasonally soggy places.
The Bush administration last summer unveiled a new manual for federal and state regulators to use in identifying and limiting disturbance of wetlands. The move followed an uproar from farmers, developers and many individual landowners, who complained that they were being wrongly denied use of their property under federal guidelines adopted in 1989.
But the new rules, which require that the land be soaked with water for 21 straight days or actually under water for 15 days, were proposed over objections from the government's own scientists. Virtually all sides in the dispute have since criticized the guidelines as confusing and unworkable.
The report says the public would have to spend tens of billions of dollars on improved sewage treatment to make up for the loss of the natural cleansing action of freshwater wetlands, which filter pollutants from ground water and streams.
Around the Chesapeake, the nation's largest estuary, 700,000 acres, or more than half the remaining freshwater wetlands, would be at risk of development, the report says. Many of the "drier" wetlands, which would be excluded from protection by the new rules, are most valuable for flood control and water quality, the report contends.
"The practical message is that this would be a disaster for the bay," said Timothy D. Searchinger of the Environmental Defense Fund, the report's chief author. He noted that Maryland and neighboring states already plan to spend more than $1 billion on sewage plant upgrades to remove nitrogen, one of two nutrients blamed for degrading the bay.
Other ecologically important areas could be similarly devastated, from the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia to the Everglades in Florida, the report says.
The losses could make coastal areas more vulnerable to flooding, and could jeopardize at least 79 species of animals and plants listed by the federal government as endangered or threatened with extinction, the report says. Ducks and waterfowl could lose nesting and feeding grounds, and commercial fisheries for Pacific salmon, trout and shellfish could be harmed, it says.
But critics of federal wetland regulation dispute such dire predictions. Bernard N. Goode, a former federal wetland regulator, charges that government scientists and environmentalists have overstated the potential acreage losses that would come from applying the new rules.
The wetlands flap could prove to be a major election issue this year, as President Bush and Congress come under mounting pressure from property owners to relax wetlands regulation. Environmentalists in turn accuse Bush of reneging on his 1988 campaign pledge to ensure "no net loss" of the nation's remaining wetlands, depleted by more than half since the American Revolution.
Administration reaction to the yesterday's report was muted. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Sean McElheny said it will be "seriously considered."